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$10,000 Bill For Citizens’ Appeal in Alameda

Friday April 21, 2006

Don’t like a development proposal? In Alameda, that could cost you more that $10,000.  

At least it did for three residents who filed appeals to a local theater project and rang up a $10,725 bill as a result.  

Alamedans Ani Dimusheva and Valerie Ruma appealed the design of an eight-screen multiplex and 350-space parking garage slated for development in the city’s downtown district last summer. The two residents, members of the ad hoc group Citizens for a Megaplex-Free Alameda, each forked over $600—$100 for a flat fee and a $500 deposit—the maximum the city would hold them responsible for, they thought.  

Instead they received an invoice for $5,500, on top of the $1,200 they already paid, with 10 days to pony up or risk referral to collections. Charges were based on planning department staff time and materials needed to process the appeals, averaged at $100 an hour, details they were never told, Ruma said.  

The statement arrived in the mail just weeks after Citizens for a Megaplex-Free Alameda sued the city over failure to commission an environmental impact report for the project.  

Bob Gavrich, another member of the citizens’ group, appealed the project’s use permit in October, and received a comparably steep bill for $3,425. Like Dimusheva and Ruma, he had already paid $600 upfront. 

“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Gavrich said. “No other city in the state or in the country, to my knowledge, charges these kinds of fees. That constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. You are keeping poorer groups from redressing grievances.” 

Gavrich admits he knew could be on the hook for an excess of $600, but that permit technician Nancy Souza told him he could also recoup some of that money. 

The same clerk allegedly told Dimusheva and Ruma that charges over their pooled $1,200 would be the responsibility of the other party, the project developer. Souza declined to comment for this story.  

Planning and Building Director Cathy Woodbury doesn’t believe staff would give out misinformation.  

“I would doubt very much they made an error,” she said. “Our staff are trained, they know what their job is.” 

But when the city conducted an internal investigation, it was revealed that Dimusheva and Ruma had not been properly informed of the fee schedule. 

City Manager Debra Kurita subsequently absolved all three residents of time and materials charges, though they will not recoup the $600 flat rate and deposit.  

Communications snafu notwithstanding, the fees levied were perfectly legitimate. In the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the cost of time and materials was added to a $125 base rate for filing an appeal. The following year, the Alameda City Council unanimously passed the current configuration as a consent item: a $100 flat rate, a $500 deposit plus time and materials. 

Councilmembers say they don’t recall passing the resolution.  

The rationale for an hourly rate, which includes the price for staff to compile reports, conduct research and attend public hearing, is to recover costs to the agency, Woodbury said. Because of the complexity of the theater project, fees exacted on Dimusheva, Ruma and Gavrich were especially stiff. 

Generally, however, the amount earned through appeal fees is a pittance in the planning department’s budget. The department has an annual budget of $3.5 million, but in the last two years, the city has processed just 13 appeals, averaging $1,061 each. Other fees, for permits for example, account for a greater portion of the budget. 

Other Bay Area studies deal with appeal fees in a variety of ways. Many distinguish between whether an applicant, like a developer, or a non-applicant--a resident for instance—files the appeals. 

To appeal a project in San Jose, for instance, a developer could shoulder a $1,925 bill, whereas a resident pays nothing. In San Rafael, non-applicant residents pay up to $303; all others pay as much as $2,730. Hayward applicants pay $1,200 plus time and materials while non-applicants pay a flat rate of $50.  

Emeryville and El Cerrito levy flat fees on all appellants in the $100 to $209 range.  

On Tuesday, the Alameda City Council considered three proposals to amend the existing resolution, all of which could have imposed costs of as much as $1,000. 

City Councilmember Frank Matarrese floated a fourth option: a $100 flat rate. 

“$100 is large enough to make a person pause to think if they’re being frivolous,” he said.  

The proposal passed unanimously. 

Though resolved, the incident has exacerbated distrust between residents and the city, Gavrich said. 

“I don’t trust any of them anymore,” Gavrich said. “They are an extremely developer-friendly City Council, planning board and staff.” 

The theater project first came up for consideration in 2000, when the city’s Economic Development Commission requested a proposal to revitalize downtown Alameda’s defunct movie theater, built in 1932. The project expanded to include a seven-screen 58-foot-tall cineplex and parking garage at the corner of Oak Street and Central Avenue, an area largely dominated by low-slung commercial buildings. 

Residents decried the project as a behemoth that would ruin Alameda’s small town charm. Citizens for a Megaplex-Free Alameda, a band of private citizens who say they have no economic interest in the development, formed in opposition. After a series of heated public meetings, the planning board approved design and granted developer Kyle Connor a use permit. Construction on the project has not begun. 

If the citizens’ group successfully wages war against the city in court, all decisions will be void. The lawsuit is expected to go before an Alameda Superior Court judge April 27. 

Local historian Woody Minor says divisiveness over the theater reflects the public’s general wariness about city expansion. 

“The city of Alameda right now is going through one of those periods where development pressures are impinging on the consciousness of the city, so there’s this climate of rancor,” he said. “We’re a polarized community.”